"My Magic": King of Pain By Diego Brodersen

in 23rd Fribourg International Film Festival

by Diego Brodersen

On a first impression, or a quite linear reading of its story, My Magic sounds like a road walked many times before. Rajr, a kid from Singapore who’s always bullied at school, lives with his father, Francis, a professional magician used to transforming his body into a receptacle of as much physical violence as he’s capable of bearing. They both belong to the Tamil minority and live on a day-to-day basis, particularly the father, an inveterate alcoholic. The first, impressive, sequence of Eric Khoo’s fourth feature shows Francis at a bar immersed in an impossible marathon of booze consumption. Until Francis — huge, unbeatable — stops asking for “another one”, the pile of glasses keeps growing on the table and the liqueur accumulates in his stomach and brain.

Then, after this almost unbearable orgy of self-destruction is over, comes the crash against the floor, the stream of vomit on the floor that will inevitably be cleaned up by the child, very much accustomed to this kind of behavior and its consequences. Francis, portrayed by professional magician Francis Bosco — whose real persona inspired the filmmaker to write the story of the film — seems to hold the burden of past guilt. His days are made up of magic, alcohol and the most violent tests of physical control, including eating glass, swallowing fire or penetrating his skin and flesh with sharp instruments. Francis is, without any doubt, the King of Pain. But as sure as hell he’s not the King of Fathers.

Khoo plays with and elaborates on the father and son psychological drama so much visited in the history of cinema. And although he seems much more interested in the dynamics of storytelling and style than in reflecting on the social milieu of the characters, there are links to other features, from the classic Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio de Sica (1948) to recent titles such as Roads to Koktebel, the much praised Russian film. The difficult, sometimes harsh relationship between Rajr and Francis will, following tradition, change over time and meet a cathartic point of disclosure and reconciliation, but My Magic takes a different and unexpected approach near the end.

Ultimately, the film can be seen as a fable of redemption with a streak of fantasy. A little, unpretentious gem that keeps growing through its precise 75 minutes, the film totally surrenders itself to the possibility of love and forgiveness in the worst of circumstances… with a little help from magic but, ideally, skipping corny cliches and demagogy.

Shot on video on a very small budget, My Magic was the official entry for Singapore in the 2009 Oscars Foreign Language category. Logically (if one can follow the logic of the Academy Awards) it was dismissed. It is logical that, for some, it may feel as if this is too small a film, particularly after the much more ambitious Be With Me, Khoo’s previous effort. For others, though, this small and sometimes beautiful chamber piece works as a great antidote to the Benjamin Buttons of this world.